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Known for dishes that evoke distant places and a cooking style that draws on slow, subtle, and labor-intensive techniques, Nicolaus Balla has a decidedly global culinary approach. Born in Michigan, Balla spent time there and in Brooklyn before moving to Budapest for his high school years. In Hungary he lived with a family whose traditional cooking style (replete with backyard slaughter) made an indelible impression. Restaurant jobs in high school confirmed that he felt very much at home in the kitchen and he ultimately received formal training at the Culinary Institute of America.
Balla completed an externship during culinary school to help open Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and traveled repeatedly to Japan for extensive stages, including work making fish cakes at a kamaboko factory, udon noodle training, and a week at a family-owned kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo. In 2004, he moved to San Francisco and took a job as line cook at Ozumo, which provided an outlet for his ongoing interest in Japanese cuisine. From there, Balla went to work as Sous Chef at Americano under Paul Arenstam. In 2007 he was tapped to take his first post as Executive Chef at O Izakaya, and he opened the Japanese restaurant to rave reviews (including 3 stars from the San Francisco Chronicle and a spot on the Chronicle’s Top 100 restaurants list). In 2009 Balla brought his inimitable Japanese cooking and his loyal following to San Francisco’s Mission District where as Executive Chef and Partner, he launched Nombe, a venue with a focus on small plates. The buzz spread quickly as Balla earned a reputation for his intoxicating broths, impeccable fish and meats, and mastery of authentic Japanese techniques alongside an embrace of local ingredients. Esquire named Balla a “chef to watch” and Nombe earned 3 stars from the SF Chronicle, placement in the Chronicle’s list of Top 100 Bay Area restaurants and a recommendation in the 2010 Michelin Guide.
While restaurants have provided a platform for showcasing Balla’s remarkable talents with Japanese cuisine, his home cooking often draws on the flavors of his years spent in Hungary and travels throughout Europe. At Bar Tartine, where he has been cooking since January of 2011, Balla employs his research into artisan techniques such as sausage preparation, cheese making, pickling and preserving to produce those authentic homemade flavors. His preference is for approachable and full-flavored dishes – what he calls “good social food.” The menu is an ideal match for the restaurant’s convivial vibe and pairs naturally with Tartine’s bread, which serves both as inspiration and accompaniment for many of the dishes.